by S. L. Bickley
Even after seven years living out in the country, Palfi didn’t know how to sense the seasons. But she knew the autumn equinox had not come yet, for she’d had no visitors in a week or so. People always came flocking when the seasons turned.
Autumn and its pilgrims could stay away forever, for all she cared. She didn’t need donations: she already had plenty of shelfbread, and plenty of wine, and a good store of donated silver which she had few opportunities to spend. And the only things a visitor might give her, apart from bread and wine and silver, were irritation and trouble.
She sat at her devotions nonetheless — partly because someone was sure to arrive the moment she abandoned her façade, and partly because the grove was a pleasant place, and Ieia, the goddess statue, was better company than most real people.
She pulled an eyeberry from the branch in her lap, bit a small hole in it, and sucked. There was a technique to getting the juice out while leaving the sharp seeds, and like any mastered skill, it pleased Palfi to execute it perfectly.
Another branch of berries sat on the statue’s base-block, atop a blotchy pink stain — the record of many fruit offerings. Eating in the grove looked less irreverent if the statue had something to eat, too.
Palfi flicked the spent berry-skin into the grass and peered up at the statue’s white stone face. On the block it was two feet taller than Palfi, so when she looked at it from a seated position, the face was all nose and chin.
The eyes, unfortunately, were not completely hidden. They were made of clear amber, and set in such a way that, in even the dimmest light, they seemed to glow.
Palfi sometimes caught herself superstitiously imagining that there was a consciousness behind them. When she had first come here she had always cast her gaze down when entering the clearing, so that she wouldn’t have to look into the eyes. Now it did not matter; from the back of the clearing, they were too blurry to discern.
She was glad she had gotten out when she did. A nearsighted thief could never make good.
“I think I’m going to take a nap,” she said to the statue, smiling at herself, as always, for talking to the silly thing. “Keep ’em away for now, huh?” The eyes glowed, as always; the nose and chin, as always, did not move.
Ieia watched herself through Palfi’s eyes, knowing that she saw more than Palfi did. With senses reduced to vision and hearing, and with her observer’s thoughts largely hidden from her, the goddess was free to concentrate on the small beautiful details of her surroundings: the hour-by-hour creep of the shadows over her face, the day-by-day yellowing of the leaves above and behind her, the year-by-year widening of the juice-stain on her plinth. It was a slow existence, full of quiet.
Palfi seldom stayed more than a few hours at a stretch; the rest of the time Ieia was alone with her thoughts, blind except for the dim, inconstant perceptions of woodland animals.
Palfi’s view shifted, tilted. She was looking high into the trees now, and only the top of the Ieia’s head remained in view, bobbing over the horizon of her vision. The priestess yawned, and it was loud in her ears.
Suddenly there was another set of eyes. Ieia saw herself, half-blocked by branches, from far back beyond the edge of the clearing. The gaze was still for a moment, overlaying Palfi’s view of the trees. Then it edged forward, branches rustling as a large, hairy hand pushed them aside, and Palfi appeared, seen from behind. She sat leaning back, propped up on sunburnt arms, her curly brown hair brushing the ground.
Pilgrims usually kept their eyes on the goddess’s face.
The intruder came a little closer. Ieia didn’t like the intermittent way he moved; it suggested stealth. He must be within the clearing now, for no branches obscured his view.
Palfi did not seem to be aware of him. Her view flickered as her eyes blinked slowly, then cut out as they closed. Ieia watched only through the intruder’s eyes as Palfi dropped back, stretching out her legs and folding her hands behind her head.
The intruder came closer. His gaze moved downward, toward Palfi, slowly at first. Then it plunged. Ieia caught a glimpse of the man’s rising knee, and of Palfi’s eyes snapping open, and then became blind and deaf. She was no longer within the intruder’s field of vision; he must be bent low, intent on whatever he was doing to Palfi. And her eyes must be covered.
Ieia seethed. Believer or no, Palfi was a priestess: What right had any man to attack a priestess at her own shrine?
She was tempted to lash out with lightning, to strike him down for Palfi’s sake.
Palfi had done her plenty of good, had given her an existence free of noise and hypocrisy and impossible demands. Normally that might warrant a simple favor — but a simple favor was no longer simple when it came at the cost of one’s own life.
At last the intruder looked at her again. This time his view was framed by Palfi’s thrashing head and awkwardly upthrust elbows. His hands gripped her forearms. Her wrists were tied behind her neck, and as she twisted in her struggles, Ieia saw that the same rope looped around Palfi’s throat, between her teeth, and even over her eyes.
“Great Athor!” shouted the intruder, in a language different from Palfi’s. “You are safe!”
A chaos of new eyes swarmed into the clearing, first converging upon Ieia-Athor, then focusing in on their own thick hands as they tipped her from her plinth.
After what seemed like hours in the bumpy, crowded cart, Palfi concluded that fighting was, for the moment at least, useless. Her abductors seemed to have an unlimited supply of rope, and whenever she struggled, they added more. Both hands and one leg had gone numb, and the extra loops around her chest made it hard to breathe.
She wondered if she had completely lost her street-sense. Struggling too hard was a novice’s mistake, a sign of panic. Whoever these people were, they surely had other things to do: eventually they would dump her in a cell, or at worst an oubliette. If she saved her energy — if she had any energy left to save — she could attempt her escape from there.
She sagged against the side boards and tried to ignore the din of alien voices, the bite of the rope on her extremities and the prickle of it over her eyelids and the taste of it in her mouth.
At long last the cart stopped. The ropes around her legs loosened. Hands gripped her arms, half guiding, half pushing her to the ground outside.
Her feet tingled, and her knees would not straighten, but before she could fall the hands grabbed her again. A man on each side of her, it would seem, walking her to her fate like a drunk’s friends walking him home.
The ground was packed dirt, and then it became cold marble. That was the last clue. These men seemed — in their numbers, their foreignness, their brutality — unlike police. And marble had no place outside a palace or a temple. She had nothing a noble might want. This had to be about the statue.
They had stolen her goddess — which she herself had bought honestly.
But if they had it, what could they want with her?
The men steered her sharply to the right, spun her around, and pushed her onto a soft seat. The one to her left spoke. The other made a rustling noise. The ropes around her chest fell away, then those around her arms and face. Her hands dropped heavily and were suffused with a hot ache that she knew would only get worse.
One of the men was swarthy and the other — the one holding the knife — was very fair. The whole room was white marble, lit by a little lamp in a low niche. The wooden door opened inward. The hinges were on the inside. The room had not been designed as a prison.
The men gabbled their gibberish at each other and backed away. Palfi remained still. Even if she could stand on her own, which was doubtful, it didn’t seem like a good idea to break for the door.
They backed out and locked her in.
Athor knew the temple, recognized all its physical details: the smoky lamps, the great stone arch above her and the little altar below, the dizzy profusion of overlapping eyelines, the pandemonium of voices and the expanse of heads.
What was new was how depressing it all seemed. If the worshipers returned to their old habits of devotion . . . She sighed inwardly. A great crowd like this, once a day and sometimes twice. At least three people in the sanctuary at all times. No sunlight, no rain or night or seasonal change. No solitude or rest. The only variables in her routine would be how many eyes she had to look through and which long-winded prayers she had to endure.
Athor watched from a thousand angles as a tall woman emerged from the congregation, wearing long robes cut similarly to Palfi’s but bleached an unnatural white. The woman stopped at the altar. She raised her arms. Her head fell back, black hair bunching in the crease of her neck.
Athor found and, with effort, isolated the priestess’s gaze. Straight up, it was, and fixed on Athor’s face, which seemed to be all nose and chin.
“O Great Athor,” the priestess shouted, and the congregation contributed a burst of wordless, nasal chant. The priestess continued. “We plead your mercy and forgiveness for abandoning you to exile, and we pledge that never more shall you be dishonored by an infidel’s prayer. We who are pure of heart and truly prepared . . .”
And so forth, and so on.
Athor composed a litany of her own, addressed to fellow-deities who almost certainly were not listening.
I didn’t believe you. You called it a fate worse than death, and I didn’t believe you, because I was happy stuck in this statue: happy with the damned death cult, and happy with these people, and happy being shuttled around the market, and happiest of all with Palfi. Was that your doing, making my existence better and better by increments, so gradually I didn’t realize how content I was . . . and then pulling it away? Did you plan it all? When you left me with the possibility of one last act, did you know I would be tempted to use it?
“Great Athor,” said the priestess, “you shall never endure another moment separated from our fervent prayers.” And the congregation moaned.
This isn’t punishment, this is extermination. You were planning to get rid of me all along.
Outside the high window darkness fell. The flaming, oil-soaked cushion was now the room’s strongest source of light, and it was mostly consumed.
Palfi knelt before the door and picked up another shard of the smashed bone lamp. This piece was smaller than the one she had been using, but also blunter. With any luck, it would have enough push to shoot the pins out of the hinges.
She rewrapped her right hand in a torn-off strip of her robe, positioned the shard underneath the pin of the lower hinge, and jammed upward with the heel of her padded hand. One, two, three times.
She had waited for the ache in her hands to go away before she began her work, but now it was returning. This job shouldn’t be so long or so hard. In younger days, she thought, it would have presented no challenge at all. She was losing her touch.
Was that because she was out of practice, or was it just her age? Hard to tell. She’d never met a fellow-thief who’d lasted long enough to become either idle or old.
Maybe, at some point, your time was just up.
No profit in thinking like that. She rubbed the shard on her robe, trying to get more of the oil off, and then repositioned it.
One, two, three.
One, two, three.
One, two, three.
One, two . . . there. The pin moved up — just incrementally, but getting it loose was always the hard part. She settled the bone into the new hollow at the bottom of the hinge and pressed her hands together, palms up, the left underneath the right.
A few minutes of pushing, and the pin was almost out. She peeled away the fabric and gripped the top of the pin with her bare hand. It came straight up.
That was it for the lower hinge.
She glanced at the burning cushion. She would have to make quick work of the upper one.
Footsteps sounded on the other side of the door. Palfi stiffened, holding her breath, waiting for them to pass.
They didn’t pass. They stopped. A key grated in the lock.
Palfi had an urge to stamp out the flame, but that would not hide the escape attempt for long. Instead, she stepped back and held up her hands.
The door creaked open, sagging on its one intact hinge. It swung across the cushion, extinguishing it. Light from the corridor shone in. Two women entered.
“Please come with us,” said the one on the right. She had an accent. “It would be wrong to resist.”
The other stood by, expressionless, waiting. Evidently she did not understand what her compatriot was saying.
Palfi looked down at the broken lamp, the discarded pin and the smudge of soot. Her time was up.
“All right,” she said.
Right said something to Left in their own language, and Left produced a pair of handcuffs from a fold in her robe.
“You don’t need to restrain me,” said Palfi. “I’ll come on my own.”
“You will forgive us if we do not believe you,” said Right.
“Sure,” said Palfi. “I’m very forgiving.” She smirked. “It’s a priestess thing.”
She lowered her arms slowly. Right nodded. Left stepped behind Palfi and secured the cuffs around her wrists. The two women moved into place beside her. Each laid a hand lightly on her shoulder, and the three stepped into the corridor.
“Are you allowed to tell me why I’m here?” Palfi asked Right.
“Ask specific questions. I may answer them.”
“Did you take my statue?” asked Palfi.
“We returned Great Athor to her home.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. Look, I want you to know that I’m not the one who stole it from you. I bought it fair and square, and I didn’t know anything about where it was before.”
“That does not matter.”
“I didn’t think it did. I just wanted you to know.”
“And now I do,” said Right. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes. What are you going to do to me?”
“We are going to sacrifice you. The sacrifice of infidels pleases Great Athor.”
Of course. Of course it would end like this. Blood on an altar — a death fit for a goat.
“Don’t most gods want their sacrifices to be pure and holy?” Right opened her mouth, and Palfi cut her off: “For that matter, don’t most gods prefer animals nowadays? Human sacrifice can get you in trouble around here, you know.”
This time, Right paused before she answered. “We are farther from your homeland than you think. And Great Athor is not most gods.”
They walked in silence for a minute or so, and then not in silence. Voices rippled through the corridor — one voice shouting, and many more chanting in response. They grew louder, clearer.
Soon Palfi and her guards reached a large wooden door. Right shook a key from her sleeve. The worshipers might be locked in. That was interesting. And the same key appeared to give access to both the cell and the sanctuary; if there were more than one, they would be on a ring. That was interesting, too.
But not useful. Not anymore.
The two women stepped away from Palfi. Right unlocked the door, and they both pushed it open. Din and brightness rushed out of the huge chamber, followed closely by the stink of lamp oil and the cloying odor of perfume.
Palfi stood still, waiting to be led. She didn’t have to wait long. The two women shouted something in unison, and a dozen or so congregants leapt up and rushed out of the sanctuary. They gathered behind Palfi and pushed her bodily through the door. The crowd split before her; their chanting turned to shouting as she passed.
A white statue stood at the front of the sanctuary, dwarfed beneath a gray stone arch. Palfi squinted as the dozen congregants propelled her closer. Yes, it was Ieia.
Her last chance at a quiet life stood above her, too high and heavy to move, too well-guarded even to approach further.
Hands pressed into Palfi’s underarms and the backs of her knees. A dark woman in bleached robes stepped to the side, revealing a narrow altar. She moved to the front of it without turning.
The altar was coarse white stone, unstained. Palfi wondered what that meant.
The hands raised her, and then dropped her. She sprawled onto the stone. Her hands strained at the metal cuffs, and she threw her shoulders back, trying to keep her balance, but it was no use. Her chin cracked painfully against the hard surface, and her breasts squashed beneath her.
She lay in pain for a few moments, sucking in the hot, thick air and trying to ignore the noise. Better to die with a little dignity, to at least face the thing that had gotten her into this mess.
She rolled onto her side and used her elbow to push herself into a sitting position, then scooted around to face the statue.
Something touched her chest, and she glanced down. The women who had brought her from her cell stood on either side of her, a white cord stretched taut between them. They raised it toward her neck. She backed up a few inches, realizing the action was useless — go back far enough, and she would just fall off the altar.
The women yanked the rope against Palfi’s throat and she fell supine, the handcuffs digging into the small of her back. All she could see was Ieia’s weathered face beneath the great stone arch.
“I hope you’re enjoying this more than I am,” she croaked at the face, and tried to smile. But it was too late for wisecracks.
The cord pressed tighter.
The room became quiet.
The cord went slack.
Air passed into Palfi’s windpipe again. She waited for the cord to retighten, for a blade to pierce her, for someone to speak, but nothing happened. Lamplight flickered on the stone arch and the statue’s face. The quiet was unnatural. So many people could never be so silent.
She turned her head to the left, then to the right. Her executioners were gone. She sat up slowly and twisted to look back at the room.
Everyone was gone. She started, and her hands pulled apart. One of the cuffs had come loose.
She dragged herself to the front of the altar, dropped to the floor, and stood for a minute, rubbing her throat with one hand and her abraded wrist with the other.
Then she turned, surveying the room. It looked larger now that it was empty. The footworn rock floor spread out like a fallow field, and the vaulted ceiling rose dizzyingly high. The door at the back was shut.
Not a shoe or garment remained. Only the burning lamps and the strangling-cord and — what was that next to it on the floor? Palfi bent to pick it up. A key. The key.
She rose and turned back, and her eyes came level with Ieia’s bare feet. “Did you do this?” she whispered.
It seemed like a foolish question. Her attackers had disappeared, her life had been saved, her hands were free — and she had the run of the temple. Of course the goddess had done it. This hunk of stone — her prop, her tool, her excuse — was a thing of power after all.
Palfi’s head dropped in sudden reverence, and she whispered the best prayer she could come up with: “I know you are alive now. Please don’t ever let me doubt it.”
She looked up at the goddess’s face. The amber eyes were dim in the lamplight. The nose and chin, as always, did not move.
About the Author
S. L. Bickley is a poet and student from Dayton, Ohio who will soon be relocating to Montana to continue her studies in the shadow of the appropriately named University Mountain.
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, a voice actress, and a force of nature. She is responsible for creating the epic fairytale fantasy realm of Arilland, and dabbling in a myriad of other worlds beyond. Her award-winning writing has been published for multiple age groups across all genres. Host of “Princess Alethea’s Fairy Tale Rants” and Princess Alethea’s Traveling Sideshow every year at Dragon Con, Alethea also narrates for ACX, IGMS, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. Born in Vermont, Alethea currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie. Find out more about Princess Alethea and the magic, wonderful world in which she lives here: https://www.patreon.com/